Can We Talk?

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So, we managed to postpone the latest self-imposed fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, other pressing issues cry for attention.

However, it is not the cliffs that bedevil our politics, but rather the slippery slopes that define our political landscape. Concessions are seen not as the uncomfortable but necessary ingredients to reaching agreement, but rather as the first steps towards ultimate defeat.

Business negotiations begin with the assumption that an agreement can be found somewhere in the middle of the opening proposals. The dance of negotiation has to precede the handshake. But our political debates begin with the fear that something precious is imperiled. Some freedom will be trampled, some right stricken from the books. The call is to the barricades, not to the bargaining table.

It is convenient, and not altogether inaccurate, to blame this on the influence of special interests or the centrifugal forces in gerrymandered districts where the greatest threat to incumbency is a challenger with even more extreme views. But there is something more fundamental at work.

The most significant political and social change of the past half-century was a civil rights revolution in which marginalized groups fought for and won rights previously denied. While we applaud these advances, we also need to recognize how this changed our politics.


Struggles for equality are fights over absolutes; kind of equal is the same thing as unequal. But this has become the lens used to define a whole range of issues, even fiscal policy. The gun owner and the unborn are now people with rights and these rights exist as absolutes, not as items for negotiation. What may appear to be a counter-revolution is really the adoption of a framework in which politics is a struggle to define and defend rights, not interests.

So it is no coincidence that the latest brand of conservatism named itself after an 18th-century act of civil disobedience.

But there is a final irony. Civil rights began as a cause but won its victories through years of negotiation. We may be a country where fighting for a cause has become an equal opportunity for all, but we still need to talk things through.

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley works for a housing non-profit. He lives in San Francisco.